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Testing Issue Isn’t as Easy as “1, 2, 3,” But You’ve Got to Start Somewhere

Have you ever watched a big person prepare to do some public speaking behind a microphone? Or maybe you’ve done it yourself. Almost always, when someone asks if the microphone is working, the person leans into the device and says something like, “Testing, testing… 123, testing.”

Well, I’m worried that little rote phrase may take on a new meaning with Colorado’s Great Testing Debate. At least five K-12 assessment bills have been introduced thus far in the state legislature, with many more promised to come. Some issues may have clear and solid answers readily available, but to say that isn’t the case with this particular issue would be putting it mildly.

After all, we have several worthy competing goals to consider. Standardized tests done right are an important tool that provides some genuine, transparent, and comparable information about how well teachers, principals, and schools — heavily funded by public tax dollars — are doing in meeting important goals to help students.

At the same time, testing ought to measure authentic knowledge and skills, to provide prompt and useful feedback to teachers, and to differentiate meaningfully based on student abilities, all without posing too great a burden of instructional time lost. No problem, right?

I’ve learned the hard way as a 5 year old that getting to an idealized system overnight, especially for something with so many facets and dimensions, is — um, well — impossible. Instead, the big people who have to make policy decisions need to take care how to move the system in the right direction without causing unintended bad effects.

A legislatively appointed Standards and Assessment (aka 1202) Task Force, which met for months seeking to get Colorado there, presented its recommendations to a legislative committee on Wednesday. The task force’s 25-page report achieved consensus on a few key areas to reduce testing and offer more flexibility. I don’t have time or space here to list them all out for you.

You should first check out yesterday’s Greeley Tribune op-ed by my Education Policy Center friend, which lays down a thoughtful stake in the testing debate. He takes on some of the specific proposals floating around, and then closes with an important reminder:

Colorado must also remember that data-driven accountability is necessary, but not sufficient, to drive improvement. More will be required to reach new educational heights. The state’s system needs more school choice for more kids, a move that would promote market-driven competition in a sector defined for too long by inertia. Coupled with smart accountability systems, choice can be a powerful tool in the fight for better educational outcomes for all.

Overall, a great perspective. I’m sure Mr. Izard would acknowledge that he has just scratched the surface (that even may be true of the 1202 Task Force’s months-long effort), but it’s a great place to start. Slowing down and giving consideration might have saved a small southwestern Colorado district (Mancos) the trouble of asking for what, based on a news report’s description, sounds like an illegal waiver. Especially after Colorado Springs 11′s superintendent and board were slapped down last year by a “complex web of statutory considerations.”

According to my dad, a fancy way of saying: “That’s just a little bit more than the law will allow.” My friends, even as closely as I try to follow this world, yours truly isn’t going to Hazzard a guess where the legislature ends up taking Colorado when it comes to K-12 testing.

But is it too much to ask for a different line to make sure the microphone is on?